Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2019 are stuck in her head.
The First Performer at Woodstock
This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival in 1969. In what turned out to be a career-changing event, Richie Havens was the first performer to set foot on the stage at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair on August 15, 1969.
It wasn't planned that way. Havens was originally scheduled to be the fifth act on opening day, a day devoted to folk and acoustic artists. But when the opener, Sweetwater, couldn't get there on time due to the massive logistical problems that became synonymous with Woodstock, on he went.
Who Was Richie Havens?
Richard Pierce Havens was born January 21, 1941 to a Native American (Blackfoot) father and Afro-Caribbean mother. Music was a big part of the daily routine in the household, with Havens' mother singing as she went about her chores and his father's ability to play songs on the piano from memory. From an early age, Havens busied himself organizing doo-wop groups made up of like-minded neighborhood kids.
Church centered prominently for the family in their Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, and Havens came to love gospel music. At the age of 16, he joined his first real group, the McCrea Gospel Singers.
Havens loved poetry almost as much as he loved music, and when the Beat culture sprang up in Greenwich Village, he decided he had to be a part of it. At the age of 20, he started hanging out in the Village, going to coffeehouses, attending poetry readings and listening to the beat and folk artists who played the clubs. At the age of 22, Havens picked up a guitar for the first time. Possessing his father's natural ability to play from memory, he began playing the songs he had heard other artists perform, and it wasn't long before he was onstage himself.
Havens was in demand as a solo artist and he recorded two demo albums with Douglas Records that didn't amount to much, but did catch the attention of Albert Grossman, who was always on the lookout for new folk talent. Albert—who already managed Peter, Paul and Mary, and Bob Dylan—added Havens to his client roster and got him a record deal with Verve.
In late 1966, Havens released his first album on Verve called "Mixed Bag," which reached the #17 spot on the Billboard Jazz Album chart. He followed that up in January of '68 with "Something Else Again," which peaked at #184 on the all-important Billboard Pop Album chart (Skip Prokop, who would go on to co-found the Canadian group Lighthouse, played drums on LP). Havens was starting to get some attention from the record-buying public, and the record that really put him on the path was "Richard P. Havens, 1983," a double-LP released in December 1968. A mix of studio and live recordings, it reached the #80 position on the Billboard Pop Album chart (Prokop appeared on this album as well, as did Stephen Stills, who played bass).
Havens was ready for Woodstock.
Richie Havens' Woodstock
The festival was supposed to begin at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, August 15th. Traffic had been building steadily through Thursday, and 25,000 campers had already settled into their tents and makeshift abodes in the fields around the site. Havens and his backing musicians (all except for his bass player) had managed to get to the site, and when Sweetwater, the original opening act, didn't arrive on time, organizers asked Havens if he could go on.
Havens finally took the stage at 5:07 p.m. His original set was supposed to be only four songs, but when the crowd kept calling him back for more, organizers were happy to comply, as they were still waiting for other acts to arrive. The guys ended up playing a number of additional songs, including a fine cover of the Beatles' tune "With a Little Help from My Friends," which would also be covered by Joe Cocker on Day 3 of the festival. It was the improvised encore, though, that made Havens a star and linked his name forever with Woodstock.
The song "Freedom," also known as "Freedom (Motherless Child)" on some releases, was based on an old spiritual number that had been reworked to become a staple performed by folk singers of the day. Largely improvised by Havens while onstage when he couldn't figure out what else to play, he added the refrain "Freedom" in between the original verses. This is such a great song, and you can hear "Freedom" on the original 1970 Woodstock triple-LP set. His musical style, where he pounded out the song on the body of the guitar as much as he played it on the strings, lent something urgent to the song.
Nearing the end of his set, he wandered off to the side of the stage while still playing, clearly exhausted and drenched in sweat. "Freedom" was to become one of the anthems to emerge from the Woodstock festival.
Richie Havens Performing "Freedom" at Woodstock
For me, the oddest thing was, I had to go see the movie to see what I did. I remember 'Freedom' and I remember 'Motherless Child,' but I didn't remember how it was structured. And I went to the movies and I saw it. It was the first time I saw myself on the screen, anywhere.
— Richie Havens on the song 'Freedom', from the book "Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked the World"
Life After Woodstock
Havens appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival just two weeks after his appearance at Woodstock. He was still riding high, and his group's performance there is another one for the books.
Havens started his own record label in 1970 which gave him more freedom as an artist. The second album released on his Stormy Forest label was "Alarm Clock", which included a magical cover of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun." The LP was Havens' first album to be included on Billboard's Top 30 Chart, reaching the #29 spot, while "Here Comes the Sun" garnered a good amount of airplay on AM stations everywhere.
In the years following Woodstock, Havens remained committed to the ideals that Woodstock represented, and he was always willing to lend his name and talent to worthy causes and to appear at events paying tribute to inspirational leaders. A few examples include:
- In August 1970, he performed at the Festival for Peace at Shea Stadium in New York, donating his time and waiving his fee, as did other performers. Others on the bill included Johnny Winter, Janis Joplin (putting in a surprise appearance) and Big Brother, Al Kooper, The James Gang, Peter Yarrow (of "Puff The Magic Dragon" fame), Poco, Pacific Gas & Electric, Paul Simon, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Steppenwolf. The concert, which was also called the Summer Festival for Peace, was one of the first concerts held in the US to raise funds for political and anti-war purposes. Concerts of this sort were starting to become more common at this point as the war in Vietnam dragged on.
- In July 1978, Havens performed at a benefit concert for The Longest Walk, which was a Native-American spiritual walk from Alcatraz to Washington, DC. The aim of the walk was to affirm Native treaty rights, a cause close to Havens' heart given his own indigenous roots.
- In December 1987, he joined an all-star lineup that included Judy Collins and Bruce Springsteen to pay posthumous tribute to artist and activist Harry Chapin at Carnegie Hall. An album of the event, "Tribute", was released in 1990.
- In 1991, Havens became 20th (living) recipient of the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award.
Though Havens never again reached the heights he did in the years immediately following Woodstock, he continued to tour and release albums. The '80s and '90s in particular saw him on the road almost constantly. He also took a turn at acting and appeared in stage productions, films and on television.
Richie Havens died of a heart attack on April 22, 2013. He was 72.
Richie Havens "Here Comes the Sun"
Five Musical Facts
- In some of the source material on Woodstock, Havens claimed to have played for three hours, as organizers kept asking him to return to the stage. The actual length of time was far less, based on his start time and the time other acts took the stage.
- Havens appeared in the original 1972 stage production of The Who's "Tommy." The Who appeared at Woodstock on Day 2.
- At the request of Sean Penn, who was jury president that year, Havens performed "Freedom" at the opening ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival in 2008.
- "Freedom" also appears in the 2012 movie "Django Unchained."
- Havens was cremated and, on August 18, 2013, his ashes were scattered over the original Woodstock site from the air.
© 2019 Kaili Bisson
Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on March 08, 2019:
Glad you enjoyed this. It must have been tough for him at times, but for sure, not a bad legacy. It will be interesting to see if any of the events to mark the 50th anniversary acknowledge him in some way.
Mike Grindle from UK on March 08, 2019:
I've literally only heard of Richie Havens in relation to his performance of 'Freedom' at Woodstock. In a way, you could say that he's almost too synonymous with that performance. Not that that's a bad legacy to have mind you.
Enjoyed reading this and finding out more about him.
Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on March 07, 2019:
So glad you enjoyed this. Imagine the thrill--and the terror--of being the opening act!
Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on March 07, 2019:
Before I started writing this article, I hadn't heard the story about his ashes. He was identified so strongly with Woodstock, so yes, a fitting final resting place for him.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on March 07, 2019:
I enjoyed this Kaili. I can't really recall Richie Havens but being the opening act at Woodstock was quite a feather in his bow. Thank you for bringing him to my attention. Nice tribute.
FlourishAnyway from USA on March 06, 2019:
It was a fitting disposal of his remains.in a way it’s sad he never grew beyond that moment.